Marilyn Nance, Last Day in Lagos

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by CARA (here) and Fourthwall Books (here). Hardcover with dust jacket (6 x 7.75 in), 280 pages, with 100 black and white photographs. Edited by Oluremi C. Onabanjo. Includes a foreword by Julie Mehretu, texts by Antawan I. Byrd, Uchenna Ikonne, and Tsitsi Ella Jaji, and an afterword by the artist. Design by Carla Saunders. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1977, some seventeen thousand people from over 50 countries convened in Lagos, Nigeria, for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. FESTAC ’77 was a month-long Black cultural festival held on independent African soil, and it is often described as the most important Black cultural event of the twentieth century. A newly oil-rich Nigeria financed the construction of a national stadium and a dedicated village to house the festival, and among the artists, writers, musicians, activists, and scholars from Africa and the black diaspora in attendance were Wole Soyinka, Ellsworth Ausby, Barkley Hendricks, Stevie Wonder, Fela Kuti, Audre Lorde, Miriam Makeba, Queen Mother Moore, Sun Ra, and many others. The festival was later described by Ebony magazine as a “family reunion”.

Prior to the festival, the Brooklyn-based photographer Marilyn Nance had submitted her portfolio to participate as an artist and had been accepted, only to subsequently learn that she had lost her spot, as the number of attendees from the United States had to be cut. But Nance was persistent, and she ended up securing a job as a photo technician, without pay or equipment, just a return flight to Nigeria. During the festival, she made over 1500 of her own images, and a new photobook titled Last Day in Lagos has rediscovered Nance’s extensive archive, allowing us to step back in time to relive the experience of being present during those exciting days and weeks. The photobook has been co-published by the Center for Art Research and Alliances (a new arts nonprofit, research center, and publisher in NYC) and the Johannesburg-based publishing house Fourthwall Books, and was edited by Oluremi C. Onabanjo, a newly-appointed associate curator of photography at MoMA.

Last Day in Lagos is a relatively small sized book, making it easy to browse and read. The end papers cleverly depict scenes coming and going from the festival, and inside, Nance’s black-and-white photographs are interleaved with texts by various contributors (printed on different yellowish paper) that set the context. Each text starts with “if you” in an unfinished sentence, such as “if you believe in the power of people traveling and talking with each other,” or “if you believe in destroying boundaries,” ultimately ending with an afterword by the artist with the headline reading “I am here to tell you that it happened. I was there”. The images and text make up roughly equal parts in the book. 

Nance describes FESTAC ’77 as “the Olympics, plus a Biennial, plus Woodstock. But Africa style.” She says she was free to decide what to photograph and how to spend her time, and since she was less interested in some of the academic discussions going on, Nance spent her time in the streets and at parties, in cafeterias and in performance arenas, shooting every single day, immersing herself completely in the rich flow of the festival.

The book opens with a sequence of images documenting people on the way to the festival and filling the stands for the opening ceremony. A photograph of a smiling Nigerian sailor leaning on a sign next to a traditional dance troupe at the opening ceremony has become one of the most recognizable shots of the festival. Another photo captures a family, nearly all dressed in white, waiting to enter the stadium for the opening ceremony as the kids smile for the camera. Nance’s photographs capture the overflowing energy and spirit in the crowds, and the diversity of the people who participated and attended. 

This photobook very much feels like a reclamation project, in many ways similar to Questlove’s recent documentary film Summer of Soul about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, and in her foreword, Julie Mehretu discusses the significance of the 1970s for the African continent. Then a conversation between the artist and Onabanjo offers an in-depth account of the events, filling in more of the backstory. Nance said “Even when I was at FESTAC, I was aware that I was part of a significant moment in history. Through the years, I discovered that this was not only a significant moment in history, but in art history, and I’ve wanted to share this. For the most part, it’s been a hidden archive.”

Her photos capture various moments from her time in Nigeria: young people eating in a festival village restaurant, a young woman selling agege (home-made African bread) in a local store, a young man working at the bronze-casting workshop, a group of kids by the Sheila cinema in Lagos, etc. Nance also appears in one of the photographs, printed full bleed. She is pictured sitting on a stone in a garden with sculpture figures, wearing a t-shirt reading “Okra is an African word” and a headscarf, looking straight into the camera. 

While many of the photographs capture anonymous participants (and Nance clearly had talents as an engaged and observant portraitist), she also documented some of the most famous guests, including Queen Mother Moore, Ellsworth Ausby, Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, and Miriam Makeba. One image captures Sun Ra as he sits at a keyboard, rehearsing at the FESTAC village; it is paired with a shot of an expressive dancer from the Sun Ra Arkestra interacting with people crowding in the doorway watching the rehearsal. Another image shows artist Ellsworth Ausby leaning against the wall in a FESTAC cap and holding a flute.

The very last photograph captures the wing of an airplane, as Nance leaves Nigeria and heads back to the United States. The third iteration of the festival, which was supposed to take place in Ethiopia, never happened, making Nance’s extensive image archive of the event all the more valuable, contributing to other recent reassessments of FESTAC ’77.

In this way, Last Day in Lagos has a variety of agendas – to bring the socio-political and art historical significance of FESTAC ’77 back into view; to celebrate and amplify Nance’s documentary persistence; and to explore Nance’s own artistic vision of the moment as seen in her photographs. The audience for Last Day in Lagos is definitely those who want to wrestle with all of these topics by indulging in active reading, and who are intrigued by unconventional narrative structures – the book brings photographs and writing together in a clever way, making them surprisingly interdependent. As Mehretu writes, Nance’s photographs “are a testament to what is euphorically and imaginatively possible”, and that might actually be an apt summary of the entire FESTAC ’77 experience. That the supportive exuberance and collective joy found in these photographs was both largely forgotten and never repeated feels like a massive missed opportunity. Hopefully this well-crafted photobook will help restore some of that contagious glow. 

Collector’s POV: Marilyn Nance does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Marilyn Nance, Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA), Fourthwall Books

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